Give The People Bread and Circuses Instead of Education and Intellectual Challenge

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The ancient Roman satirist and poet Juvenal accused his fellow citizens of selling out their patriotic duty for bribes of “bread and circuses.” They cared not about their freedom or the well-being of their fellow citizens, only about entertainment and food.  

“… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.” Juvenal was the first to utter the phrase, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” famously borrowed by John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address.

We Americans, and other cultures today, are in danger of doing the same. As visionary educator Neil Postman wrote way back in 1985, we are “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” He observed that people have come to love the technologies that undo their capacities to think, and have actually come to love and participate in their own oppression. I observe this closely in my university classrooms, where students have difficulty going 20 minutes without checking their smartphones and texting online with friends. If I assign a book, it’s guaranteed that a minority of the class will actually read it to the end.

The problem is far worse today than it was when Postman wrote his book. Worldwide, many citizens in diverse countries are addicted to entertainment which “has been compared to the circuses of ancient Rome. We can, and do, spend much of our free time watching dreck on TV,’ Alice Schroader wrote on Bloomberg.com, in an article titled The Danger of Living on Bread and Circuses. “Circuses are where the money is.”

I would add endless sports watching, video-gaming, Internet surfing, chatting and constant social-media-posting. Schroader cited a 2009 U.S. study indicating that “people over age 15 spent an average of 58 percent of their leisure time watching television, playing games and using the Internet — an increase of 16 percent from 2003.” A 2010 study by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America found that “teens spend 53 hours per week on electronic media.” Since then, with the widespread increase in smartphones, the number of hours online has increased even more. The average teen sends more than 3,000 text messages per month, according to Nielsen. “Overall book sales have been anemic in recent years,” the New York Times reports, “declining 6 percent in the first half of 2013 alone…Librarians, described by the novelist Richard Powers as ‘gas attendant[s] of the mind,’ saw a national decrease in their numbers of nearly 100,000 over the two decades to 2009.” At the same time, attention spans have declined dramatically in the last two generations.

I read about the decline, sadly, at my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and in my home state in general, where the quest for educational excellence seems no longer to be a priority. Educators’ salaries have dropped dramatically — from 25th in the nation to 48th in just six years, and class sizes have increased at the elementary, secondary and university levels. Student-athletes are being exploited, admitted to colleges where they can’t compete academically, encouraged to sign up for classes that don’t meet and that require minimal homework, in order to become gladiators in the money-grubbing sports entertainment-industrial complex, which provides increasingly important income to universities because funding by taxpayers has been slashed and costs have gone up.

Only the luckiest college students graduate without debt these days. Most will spend years paying off student loans, and if they get stuck in low-paying jobs, many will wonder whether it was worth it. In the 1970s, when I was an undergraduate, few of my peers at public universities took on significant debt to graduate.

Sometimes I feel like I’m watching the decline of a modern Roman Empire before my very eyes. It’s not just an American phenomenon, but worldwide.

Do the people actually care about this intellectual and educational decline? Or are they so distracted and anesthetized by a modern equivalent of “bread and circuses” to do anything about it? Young people, especially, seem to be so addicted to cheap entertainment, diverting drama, exciting sports competitions, interactive gaming, online social networking, endless texting and chatting on mobile phones that they are failing to become the conscientious students and involved citizens that they could become.

I believe that the University of North Carolina will recover its tarnished reputation. At least the shortcuts and athletic exploitations are widely seen as a scandal in the state and the nation, and it’s unclear how common the abuses were. But the larger cultural trends I identify will probably be a problem for a long time to come.

Originally published in 2014 on my old blog, this post about American culture predicted the circus spectacle of the 2016 election.

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